Things I Learned from Fr Sergei Oviannikov

By Jim Forest

One of the many things Fr Sergei and I had in common is that we had both been in prison, in my case in America back in the late sixties for an act of protest against the Vietnam War, in his case in 1973 for acts of disobedience while he was in the Soviet army.

In a conversation Nancy and I had with Fr Sergei at our home in the summer of 2017, he recalled that his first few weeks as a prisoner were not difficult. “I was with other people and we had good discussions,” he said, “but when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. That was not so pleasant!”

But in that period he learned an important lesson. “I realized that we are always being followed by such a soldier even when we were living our ordinary lives, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him, but somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You become your own guard, your own censor. You learn to follow the rules of the system.”

What, we asked him, is the system attempting to achieve? His answer: it is intended to keep us in a state of fear.

“I shared this thought with another prisoner,” Fr Sergei recalled. “He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You cannot really sleep — the floor is wet. You cannot read — there are no books. You cannot write — no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. All you can do is think.”

But trying to think proved not so easy. He crashed into a stone wall within himself.

“I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had the idea that thinking is an easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, about laws of physics, about formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words ‘freedom is in God.’ But — a big but — I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God!”

At this point in our conversation, Fr Sergei laughed. In fact all three of us were laughing. How do you find freedom is in God if all your life you have been taught that God is a fairy story?

“But it seems God believed in me,” Fr Sergei continued. “I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha — Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service.”

Fr Sergei had his first experience of Paschal joy while in solitary confinement, a situation that makes one think of the tomb in which the body of Christ was placed after his crucifixion.

And what is Paschal joy? Really it is indescribable, Fr Sergei said, but one of the main hallmarks is that you are instantly freed from an inner prison that has held you captive since childhood, a state of fear which is so normal, so ordinary, that you become aware of it only when you are doing something of moral value but which , if you dare to do it, may well get you into serious trouble.”

“In that cell I lost my fear,” said Fr Sergei. “I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given — you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life.”

This event within a small prison cell in a military prison was the most important border crossing in Fr Sergei’s adult life.

Once out of prison and back in civilian life he managed to get a Bible — not easy in those days — and began to read the Gospel. “This was the real beginning of my life,” he told us. And then he began his search to find his place in Christianity, which was not easy. “It was the beginning of the seventies,” he said. “Not many churches were open and churches were watched closely.”

One clear sign of how free of fear Fr Sergei had become was his engagement in a movement that called itself the Christian Seminar. It had informal groups both in Leningrad and Moscow. Mostly composed of students, participants debated scripture, theology and church history, and not just from Orthodox sources. Not everyone involved became a believer and still fewer embraced Orthodox Christianity, but Fr Sergei was one of them. Another who did so was Alexander Ogorodnikov, a prisoner at the notorious Perm 36 from 1978 until 1987. He has come to visit our parish several times.

After six years at the Physics Institute in Leningrad, in 1980 Fr Sergei began theological studies at the seminary in Leningrad. Ten years later he was ordained a priest by his spiritual father, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, in London. From London he came to Amsterdam.

Anyone who was active in this parish in the years Fr Sergei was serving here will have his or her own memories of what he was like — advice given in confession, conversations they had with him, stories and jokes he told, encouragement he gave. Probably everyone will remember what he said in some of his sermons.

One of his frequent themes in sermons was freedom — svoboda. It was a rare sermon in which that word did not find a place.

“Freedom is such an important topic,” he told Nancy and me. “Freedom is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ And Adam responded, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.’ This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be reborn in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people.”

At the end of that conversation, Fr Sergei reminded us that Christ is often described as a physician. “Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes,” he said. “One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. We must open our eyes, but not only our eyes. We must enlarge our hearts. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you — on you and your spiritual condition.”

It is two years since Fr Sergei’s death but our memories of him help keep him present. May he help us overcome all the fears that constrain our love for each other, blind us to the beauty that surrounds us, and keep us from becoming free people.

* * *
12 January 2020
* * *

Thomas Merton’s Last Three Days

This is an extract from the revised edition of Living With Wisdom, a biography of Thomas Merton written by Jim Forest and published by Orbis Books. Footnotes have been removed.

On December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Merton made his last journal entry. He was off to say Mass at the Church of Saint Louis, whose name had become his in Trappist life, then to have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation before going to the Sawang Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center.

The meeting place was at Samutprakan, 29 miles south of Bangkok. Merton arrived in the afternoon and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two. The conference began the next day with a welcoming address from the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism. Events of the day included an evening discussion on marriage and celibacy.

Few of the monks got much sleep that night. A chorus of cats had come out to sing the night office on nearby roofs. Following crescendos of cat howling, those in adjacent rooms heard Merton’s laughter.

Merton’s paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” was presented the next morning. Merton, under orders from his abbot to avoid the press, was made nervous by Dutch and Italian television crews which had turned up to film his lecture.

One of the crucial issues confronting the monk, Merton pointed out, is what his position is and how he identifies himself in a world of revolution. This wasn’t simply a matter of how to survive an enemy who is intent on either destroying religion or converting those of religious convictions to atheism. Rather, it was a matter of understanding, beyond present models of Marxism and monasticism, the fundamental points of similarity and difference.

He recognized significant similarities. The monk, after all, “is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures … [saying] that the claims of the world are fraudulent.” In addition, both monk and Marxist share the idea that each should give according to his capacity and receive according to his need. But while the Marxist gives primary emphasis to the material and economic structures of life, seeing religious approaches as empty mystification, the monk is committed to bringing about a human transformation that begins at the level of consciousness.

“Instead of starting with matter itself and then moving up to a new structure, in which man will automatically develop a new consciousness, the traditional religions begin with the consciousness of the individual seeking to transform and liberate the truth in each person, with the idea that it will then communicate itself to others.”

This is emphatically the vocation of the monk “who seeks full realization … [and] has come to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.” At the deepest level, the monk is teaching others how to live by love. For Christians, this is the discovery of Christ dwelling in all others.

Only with such love, Merton went on, is it possible to realize the economic ideal of each giving according to his ability and receiving according to his need. But in actuality many Christians, including those in monastic communities, have not reached this level of love and realization. They have burdened their lives with too many false needs and these have blocked the way to full realization, the monk’s only reason for being.

Merton told a story he had heard from Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche of a Buddhist abbot fleeing from his Tibetan monastery before the advance of Chinese Communist troops. He encountered another monk leading a train of twenty-five yaks loaded with the treasures of the monastery and “essential” provisions. The abbot chose not to stay with the treasure or the treasurer; traveling light, he managed to cross the border into India, destitute but alive. The yak-tending monk, chained to his treasure, was overtaken by the soldiers and was never heard of again.

“We can ask ourselves,” Merton said, “if we are planning for the next twenty years to be traveling with a train of yaks.” Monasticism, after all, is not architecture or clothing or even rules of life. It is “total inner transformation. Let the yaks take care of themselves.” The monastic life thrives whenever there is a person “giving some kind of direction and instruction to a small group attempting to love God and reach union with him.”

Authentic monasticism cannot be extinguished. “It is imperishable. It represents an instinct of the human heart, and it represents a charism given by God to man. It cannot be rooted out, because it does not depend on man. It does not depend on cultural factors, and it does not depend on sociological or psychological factors. It is something much deeper.”

Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until the evening session. He concluded with the words, “So I will disappear,” adding the suggestion that everyone have a Coke.

At about 3 p.m., Father François de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door but there was no response. Shortly before 4 o’clock Father de Grunne came down again to get the cottage key from Merton and to reassure himself that nothing was the matter. When there was no answer he looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. Father de Grunne tried to open the door but it was locked. With the help of others, the door was opened.

There was a smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. Dom Odo Haas, Abbot of Waekwan, tried to lift it and received an electric shock that jerked him sideways, holding him fast to the shaft of the fan until Father Celestine Say pulled the plug.

A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of the head. The priests gave Merton absolution, then Dom Odo went to get the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Dom Rembert Weakland, who gave Merton extreme unction. A doctor arrived, Mother Edeltrud Weist, prioress of Taegu Convent in Korea. She checked for pulse and eye reaction to light. A police test of the fan showed that a “defective electric cord was installed inside its stand…. The flow of electricity was strong enough to cause the death of a person if he touched the metal part.”

After Merton’s body was released to Dom Weakland, it was washed, then taken to the chapel. There was a prayer vigil throughout the night at the side of the body.

The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam. From Oakland, California, it continued by civilian carrier, at last reaching the Abbey of Gethsemani the afternoon of December 17.

The monks at the abbey had been informed of the death by Dom Flavian during their mid-day meal on December 10. In the days that followed, The Seven Storey Mountain was read aloud during meals in the refectory. “Some of us saw a considerable irony in fact that the refectory reader was Father Raymond Flanagan,” recalls Father Patrick Reardon, then a member of the community, “who had been carrying on a running feud with Father Louis for about as long as any of us could remember.”

One of the brothers drove a truck out to the hermitage of Dom James Fox to bring him back for the funeral. Dom James remarked that Merton “now knows more theology than any of us.” The brother responded, “Well, Reverend Father, he always did.”

Dom Flavian and Father John Eudes Bamberger identified the body at the undertakers in New Haven, where the casket was briefly opened. “I readily identified the body though it was already bloated and swollen considerably,” Father John Eudes wrote. “There was no doubt it was Father Louis.”

The casket arrived at the monastery only a couple of hours before the afternoon funeral Mass and was placed in the abbey basilica. Father Timothy Kelly, later to succeed Dom Flavian as abbot, and Father Patrick Reardon prayed the psalms over the body for the hour or more prior to the funeral.

The funeral Mass was composed by Father Chrysogonus Waddell. On the cover of the Liturgy booklet was a text from The Sign of Jonas: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with My Mercy…. Have you lost sight of me Jonas My Child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.”

Part of the Book of Jonah was read aloud. At the end of the Mass, there was a reading from The Seven Storey Mountain, concluding with the book’s prophetic final sentence, “That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

His brother monks buried Merton in their small cemetery next to the abbey church. Normally Trappists were buried without a casket. Merton was one of two exceptions. The other had been Dom Frederick Dunne, the abbot who had received Merton in 1941 and encouraged him to write. Dom Frederick had also died while traveling.

“A whole bunch of us grabbed shovels to fill in Father Louis’s grave at the end of the service,” Father Patrick recalled. “I remember Father Raymond going at it with the gusto he brought to every enterprise. Toward the end of the burial, it began to rain, so we were quite damp when we returned to the church.”

With the body came an official declaration of Merton’s effects, appraised in dollars. The items listed included these five:

1 Timex Watch $10.00
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames Nil
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary Nil
1 Rosary (broken) Nil
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child Nil

There was also the memory of Merton’s last words. Following the morning conference, Father de Grunne told Merton that a nun in the audience was annoyed that Merton had said nothing about converting people.

“What we are asked to do at present,” Merton responded, “is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”

The icon Merton had with him contains its own last words, silent on one side, and on the back a brief extract from the Philokalia, written in Greek in Merton’s hand:

“If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.”

* * *

Lord, that I might see: talk at the bishops’ peace dinner

“I was hungry and you fed me” by the Master of Alkmaar, now in the care of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Bishops’ Peace Dinner text / 26 November 2019 / an annual event held in Baltimore and sponsored by the Catholic Peace Fellowship

By Jim Forest

Images referred to are in this album:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157711100733001

[air view of the Abbey of Gethsemani]
One of the significant events of my life was being a participant in a retreat on the spiritual roots of peacemaking and protest hosted by Thomas Merton and held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in November 1964. It was a formative event in the founding of the Catholic Peace Fellowship 55 years ago.

[cover of The Seven Storey Mountain]
Only three years earlier I had been pointed in quite a different direction. I was a third class petty officer working with a Navy meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, D.C. I was also a recent Catholic convert. One of the books I read in that period of my life was Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he has a lot to say about the formation of his conscience. Regarding the issue of war and killing, he didn’t want to do anything that he couldn’t imagine Christ doing. He wrote to his draft board declaring himself a conscientious objector.

[icon of Christ Pantocrator]
As Merton explained in The Seven Storey Mountain: “[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.”

This line of attending to the Gospel became quite urgent for me personally when I was asked to fill out a form that included a difficult question: Were there any circumstances in which I might not be able to perform the duties which I might be be called upon to take.

[ruins of war — view of Dresden after the fire storm]
I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer honestly in a manner that would not get me into trouble. Getting back to my base on the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read and think. I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of the Church’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties.

[photo of Anne Frank]
Also how could any Christian, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient soldiers and police who herded captives into concentration camps and gas chambers. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it. Finally I composed this paragraph:

“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church…. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

[Navy Commander John Marabito]
To make a long story short, thanks to the support of a senior officer in my command, Commander John Marabito, plus several priests —— one in my parish, one a Navy chaplain, one teaching at Catholic University — not many weeks later I was given an early discharge on the basis of conscientious objection. It was the starting point of a vocation in peace work that still goes on.

[cover of The Long Loneliness]
Once out of uniform, my next step was joining the Catholic Worker community in New York. That decision was in part influenced by another book I had read while in the Navy, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Her life found its center point in the same Gospel sentence that so influenced Thomas Merton: “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

[photo of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin]
The idea of launching the Catholic Peace Fellowship began taking root not long after I joined the Catholic Worker, but it wasn’t until three years later, 1964, that I began collaborating with several friends in actually starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship. One of our key advisors was Thomas Merton.

[Eric Gill engraving of Christ healing the man born blind]
The retreat in Kentucky began with a welcome from Merton which had its focal point in three Latin words: Domine ut videam! Lord, that I might see! This is Bartimaeus’s desperate appeal to Jesus to heal his blind eyes. These few words are at the heart of every Christian life that attempts to shape itself around the Beatitudes, the eighth of which is “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Peacemaking begins with seeing — seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, seeing our lives in the light of the kingdom of God, seeing those who suffer, seeing how interconnected we are, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies. What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives. The day-to-day challenge is to be aware of the divine presence in the other, whoever that may be. It’s a struggle not to be blinded by fear.

[Catholic Worker October 1961– top half of page 1]
As Merton wrote in an essay published in The Catholic Worker, “The root of war is fear.”

Blindness is a major topic in the Gospels. It concerns not only those, like Bartimaeus, whose eyes cannot tell the difference between noon and midnight, but all of us. Our constant challenge is to be aware of the divine presence — and at the same time be alert to the demonic, to be able to tell the difference between that which safeguards life and that which destroys life, to mark what reveals the kingdom of God and what obscures it.

[drawing of A.J. Muste]
At the Merton retreat the theme of seeing was dramatized by the presence among us of A.J. Muste, a leading figure in the American peace movement. As a seminary student, Martin Luther King had first learned about the path of nonviolence in a lecture given by A.J. Muste. He later became one of King’s advisers. A.J. had devoted many years of his life to work for nuclear disarmament. Before his death in 1967, he played a pivotal role in efforts to end the Vietnam War.

[fall maple leaf]
But it is not what A.J. talked about during the retreat that I recall most vividly. It was the fact that shortly before coming to Kentucky, A.J. had undergone surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, he was in a constant state of amazement, seeing everything as if he had been given the eyes of Bartimaeus. I have never seen anyone, even Dorothy Day, look at the world around him more attentively, so full of awe and gratitude. No leaf or flash of color went unappreciated. He reminded me of a sentence from G.K. Chesterton: “I am astonished that people are not astonished.” A.J. helped all of us open our eyes a little wider.

[Nagasaki after the nuclear explosion]
One of the topics in our retreat conversations was technology. On the one hand, technology has the potential to solve many problems. I recall how grateful Merton was for the ingenious Coleman lantern that illumined his hermitage. On the other hand, technology can create a hellish darkness. It can destroy whole cities in a blinding nuclear flash while incinerating millions of people.

[Pandora opening the box]
One sentence that stands out in my memory of the retreat is this: “If it can be done it must be done.” Once a technological possibility is envisioned, we are drawn to making the vision real as irresistibly as Pandora was drawn to opening the chest that had served as a prison for all evil spirits. The challenge of being members of a technological society poised on the edge of unprecedented self-inflicted catastrophe is developing a capacity to envision consequences — to foresee, for example, that a nuclear weapon, so long as it exists, is sooner or later likely to be used and when that happens will kill vast numbers of innocent people.

[icon of the Last Supper – the apostles with Christ]
Merton and I carried on a frequent correspondence that began soon after I joined the Catholic Worker and lasted until his death — seven years of letters. In a letter he sent me several years after the retreat, he remarked that peacemaking is in fact an apostolic work — work of the highest order. It means becoming more Christ-like. It’s work that centers on conversion, both my own unfinished conversion and the conversion of others. Drawing on the example of the apostles, we need to keep in mind that no one is converted by anger or contempt or self-righteousness. Only love pries open the doors that enmity locks. In fact to really be effective peace work needs to be animated by love, not love in the sentimental sense but in the sober biblical sense of the word. As St John put it, “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” Another way of putting it is this: Until we love our enemies, we’re not yet Christians.

Once again, seeing is the challenge. For that to happen, we have to see our neighbor, even if he is someone currently possessed by evil, with God’s eyes rather than our own. God never gives up on any of us.

[Franz Jägerstätter]
One of the people we talked about at the retreat was Franz Jägerstätter, a man not many people had heard of at the time. Gordon Zahn’s book about Jägerstätter, In Solitary Witness, had only just been published. Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him. He was aware of the satanic character of Nazism and spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hellish nature of Hitler’s movement. He paid for his peaceful resistance with his life. Over the years Jägerstätter has come to be recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Linz, Austria, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies or to have a role in the Nazi concentration camps and the structures which siphoned Jews and others into them. In fact, many bishops were outspoken supporters of Hitler’s wars.

[Franz Jägerstätter – Austrian postage stamp]
A saint like Franz Jägerstätter, his eyes wide open, represents the holy act of saying “no” under certain circumstances: “No, I will not be your obedient killer. No, I will not play it safe. No, I would rather die than join in a parade to hell.”

An item of good news is that Blessed Franz Jägerstätter is now about to become much better known. A film about him, “A Hidden Life,” written and directed by Terrence Malick, is due for release in the coming months. It’s a film not to miss.

[Jim Forest and Tom Cornell in the CPF office in 1966]
The retreat played a major role in shaping the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In January 1965, I became the first person on the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and soon after was joined by Tom Cornell. Merton was the most renowned member of our advisory board, with Dan Berrigan, another participant in the retreat, becoming in effect our chaplain. Our core work was assisting young Catholics who were seeking recognition as conscientious objectors — people saying no to war and seeking instead to embrace a life shaped by the works of mercy.

[painting: “I was hungry and you fed me”]
To conclude: It all has to do with how we see each other. As Saint John Chrysostom said, “If I do not see Christ in the beggar at the church door, I will not find him in the chalice.”

Domine ut videam. Lord, that I might see!

— Jim Forest

* * *

Thomas Merton on Compassion and peacemaking

photo by Jim Forest: Merton and Dan Berrigan during retreat on ‘the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964

A basic question for those involved in planning protest actions is how to reach and change the minds of those who feel accused, judged and condemned by the protest and react defensively and even angrily if not violently. It was a topic that Thomas Merton wrote to me about of several occasions in the sixties.

Here is an extract from a lecture I gave a few years ago on Merton’s advice to peacemakers.

Jim Forest

* * *

Despite his physical distance from centers of protest activity in the 1960s, Thomas Merton was quite able to relate to those in the thick of protest thanks to his vivid memories of equivalent activities from his student days at Columbia University in New York City. “I have the feeling of being a survivor of the shipwrecked thirties,” he wrote me early in 1963, “one of the few that has kept my original face before this present world was born.”

What he found was often missing among protesters was compassion. Those involved in protests tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo, while at the same time viewing themselves as models of what others should be. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger, becomes a whirlpool of self-righteousness, and even becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others rather than someone who helps open the door to conversion. As he put it in one letter:

“We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears … and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us. These are, after all, the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

Most people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice — which objectively endangers them. As he put it:

“[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.”

Compassion was again stressed by Merton during a small retreat for peacemakers that he hosted in November 1964. He raised a provocative question: “By what right to we protest?” It wasn’t a question I had ever before considered. I was born into a family in which protest was a normal activity. While not by nature a person drawn to protest, as a young adult I found myself seeing protest as an unfortunate necessity. I could not watch preparations for nuclear war and fail to raise a dissenting voice or refuse to participate in actions of resistance. To protest was a duty, period. But by raising the “by what right” question, Merton forced me to consider that protest, if it is to have any hope of constructive impact on others, has to be undertaken not only with great care but with a genuine sympathy for those who object to one’s protest, who feel threatened and angered by it, who regard you as a traitor. After all, what we are seeking is not just to make some noise but to help others think freshly about our social order and the direction we’re going.

When compassion and love are absent, Merton insisted, actions that are superficially nonviolent tend to mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he wrote in one of his most profound and insightful letters:

“One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.”

Merton noticed that peace activists sometimes identify too much with sectarian ideologies or with particular political parties. In his view peace activity should communicate liberating possibilities to others, left, right and center. As he put it to me in one letter:

“It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics.”

One more aspect that Merton helped me understand, the role of prayer:

We are, as Christians, commanded to love our opponents, adversaries and enemies and to pray for them. For many people today, Donald Trump is at the top of our enemies list. But how many Christians who are at odds with Trump’s policies and methods in fact pray for him? Prayer is an essential first step in the path of loving enemies.

Many American Christians regard Trump with loathing but would rather jump off a cliff than pray for him. But the moment one begins to pray for people we resist praying for, a border within ourselves is crossed. We may see no change in the adversary for whom we are praying, but at the very least we begin to see a change in ourselves.

The person we hate needs to be seen through the lens of compassion. In the case of Trump, hating him will certainly not generate a force that leads to constructive change either in him or in his supporters.

My own take on Trump is that he probably has experienced little if any real love from infancy onward. Like so many children of the ultra-wealthy, he was, and remains, a rich orphan. Add him to your prayer list.

* * *

An essay that includes much more from Merton on this topic:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Time of War

For an in-depth treatment, see my book, “The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers”:

The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers

* * *
18 November 2019

St Francis and the Seventh Beatitude

engraving by Fritz Eichenberg

by Jim Forest

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” — Matthew 5:9

No saint has been more identified with the beatitude of peacemaking than Saint Francis of Assisi. The most famous prayer for peace, echoing the seventh beatitude, is attributed to him: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Whether or not these exact words were said by Francis, the prayer sums up his life and at the same time illustrates how disturbing Christ’s peace can be to those who are basically pleased with the way things are.

As a young man Francis seemed well on his way to realizing all of his father’s expectations: he was attractive, ambitious, popular among his peers, useful in his father’s cloth shop on Assisi’s main square, so well dressed that he was a walking advertisement for his father’s wares. However, his life began to change course after a year-long period of imprisonment following a battle with the neighboring town of Perugia in the year 1202. Francis, then twenty years old, was lucky not to have been among the many maimed or killed in the fighting. He had imagined the glory of battle and of being a man-of-arms for years, but now he had seen the reality of war: hatred turning beautiful faces into hideous masks, twisting sane minds to madness. Freed at last by payment of a ransom, he returned home disillusioned and gravely ill. He spent months recovering.

The first glimpse we have of the transformation taking place in Francis’s soul happened when he was riding outside the town and came upon a young man whose family had lost its property and fortune because of the war. All they had left was a ruined tower. The youth wore rags. Francis got off his horse and gave away his own splendid clothing.

Then there was the day he stopped to pray in the chapel of San Damiano. The building was in the final stages of decay, but it still possessed a large, cross-shaped image of the crucifixion painted in the ancient iconographic tradition, thus an image stressing less the suffering of Christ than his free gift of himself. Having given up dreams of glory in war, and finding moneymaking and spending a circular path going nowhere, he was desperate to have some sign of what God wanted him to do. Then, in the darkness, he heard Christ whisper to him, as if the icon itself were speaking: “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”

Taking the words literally, Francis set about the hard labor of rebuilding a chapel that no one else regarded as needed, financing the project by selling off some valuable items from his father’s warehouse. This unauthorized action caused an explosion of paternal wrath that culminated in a trial before the bishop in Assisi’s marketplace. Francis not only admitted his fault and restored his father’s money but removed all his garments, presenting them to his father with the words, “Hitherto I have called you father on earth; but now I say, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’.” The astonished bishop hastily covered Francis with his own mantle. Thus Francis cut the last threads binding him to the ambitions that had dominated his earlier life.

By now Francis had only one ambition: to live according to the gospel. He understood this to mean a life without money, wearing the same rags beggars wore, and owning nothing that might stir up the envy of others and thus give rise to violence. He wanted to be one of the least, a little brother living in poverty, rather than a great man.

What was most surprising was the spirit of joy that surrounded Francis. His customary greeting to those he met was “pace e bene” — “peace and goodness.” Before long a dozen friends joined him, forming the nucleus of a new order, the Minores (the Lesser Brothers, in contrast to the Majores, the great ones who ruled the cities and organized wars). They were not simply poor but had, he explained, married the most beautiful bride, Lady Poverty. Assisi’s bishop didn’t approve. “You and your brothers are a disgrace,” he told Francis. “At least you can provide what will make you a bit more respectable.” “O Domini mi,” replied Francis, “if we had possessions we should need weapons to protect them.”

In 1210 the brothers walked to Rome and won approval for their simple rule of life from Pope Innocent III — this despite advice the pope had received that such absolute poverty as Francis’s rule decreed was impractical. Legend explains that Pope Innocent had a dream of Francis in his rags preventing Rome’s principal church from collapsing.

Francis, then twenty-eight, was to live only another sixteen years, but in his short life he left us with a treasure chest of stories about what can happen when someone tries with every fiber of his being to live the peace of Christ in the face of the world’s violence.

Among the most well-attested stories in Francis’s life is his meeting in 1219 with one of Christianity’s chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, shortly after a crusader victory at the port city of Damietta (modern Dumyat) on the Nile Delta. Francis, who opposed all killing no matter what the cause, sought the blessing of the cardinal who was chaplain to the crusader forces to go and preach the gospel to the sultan. The cardinal told him that the Muslims understood only weapons and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was to kill them. At last the cardinal stood aside, certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother traveling with him, were being led to die as martyrs. The two left the crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

Soldiers of the sultan’s army captured the pair, beat them, and then brought them before Malik-al-Kamil, who asked if they wished to become Muslims. Saying yes would save their lives. Francis replied that they came to seek his conversion; if they failed in their effort, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s gospel; whether or not he made such a proposal, going unarmed into the enemy’s stronghold was analogous to leaping into a fire.

For a month Francis and the sultan met daily. Though neither converted the other, the sultan had such warmth for his guests that not only did he spare their lives but gave them a passport allowing them to visit Christian holy places under Muslim control and presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn, which is now among the relics of the saint kept in the Basilica of Assisi. It is recorded that “the two [Francis and Malik-al-Kamil] parted as brothers.”

What a different history we would look back upon if Muslims had encountered Christians who did not slaughter their enemies. When the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, no inhabitant of the city was spared — men, women, and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the crusaders’ horses waded in blood. While Christians in the first three centuries would have taken a nonviolent example for granted, by the thirteenth century Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness. Christianity in the West was preaching the holiness of war.

Another of Francis’s efforts as a peacemaker comes toward the end of his life and concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life, Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp . . . and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:

The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow town and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you anymore, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”

After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”

Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, told me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio.

While the encounters with the sultan and the wolf were later embellished, nonetheless certain aspects of both stories shine through the embroidery. In each instance Francis gave an example of love that refuses weapons. His courage is impressive; he was not only praying for enemies but meeting them, even at the risk of his own life. After all, to die in war for the kings of this earth has been the fate of millions of people; why should those who serve the gospel hesitate to risk their lives for the king of heaven?

Francis became, in a sense, the soldier he had dreamed of becoming as a boy; he was just as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defense of others. There was only this crucial difference. His purpose was not the conquest but the conversion of his adversary; this required refusing the use of weapons of war, because no one has ever been converted by violence. Francis always regarded conversion as a realistic goal. After all, if God could convert Francis, anyone might be converted. But such actions — equivalent to leaping into a furnace — are only possible when nothing in life is more important than Christ and his kingdom, a discipleship that begins with poverty of spirit and ascends to being an ambassador of Christ’s peace.

One of Francis’s many other remarkable acts of peacemaking was his founding a third order — a society for lay people — whose rule obliged members to be unarmed: “They are to be reconciled with their neighbors and [are] to restore what belongs to others…. They are not to take up deadly weapons, or bear them about, against anybody…. They are to refrain from formal oaths [which might bind them to military service]…. They are to perform the works of mercy: visiting and caring for the sick, burying the dead, and caring for the poor…. They should seek the reconciliation of enemies, both among their members and among non-members.” (To dig deeper, see Francis of Assisi by Arnaldo Fortini (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p 522; also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Order_of_Saint_Francis for an outline of the rule and its history.)

“They are truly peacemakers,” Saint Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.”

— extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)

* * *

Lord, that I might see

images: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157711100733001

[air view of the Abbey of Gethsemani]
One of the significant events of my life was being a participant in a retreat on the spiritual roots of peacemaking and protest hosted by Thomas Merton and held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in November 1964. It was a formative event in the founding of the Catholic Peace Fellowship 55 years ago.

[cover of The Seven Storey Mountain]
Only three years earlier I had been pointed in quite a different direction. I was a third class petty officer working with a Navy meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, D.C. I was also a recent Catholic convert. One of the books I read in that period of my life was Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he has a lot to say about the formation of his conscience. Regarding the issue of war and killing, he didn’t want to do anything that he couldn’t imagine Christ doing. He wrote to his draft board declaring himself a conscientious objector.

[icon of Christ Pantocrator]
As Merton explained in The Seven Storey Mountain: “[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.”

This line of attending to the Gospel became quite urgent for me personally when I was asked to fill out a form that included a difficult question: Were there any circumstances in which I might not be able to perform the duties which I might be be called upon to take.

[ruins of war — view of Dresden after the fire storm]
I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer honestly in a manner that would not get me into trouble. Getting back to my base on the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read and think. I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of the Church’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties.

[Anne Frank]
Also how could any Christian, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient soldiers and police who herded captives into concentration camps and gas chambers. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it. Finally I composed this paragraph:

[Vietnamese children fleeing napalm attack]
“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church…. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

[Navy Commander John Marabito]
To make a long story short, thanks to the support of a senior officer, Commander John Marabito, in my command plus several priests —— one in my parish, one a Navy chaplain, one teaching at Catholic University — not many weeks later I was given an early discharge on the basis of conscientious objection. It was the starting point of a vocation in peace work that still goes on.

[cover of The Long Loneliness]
Once out of uniform, my next step was joining the Catholic Worker community in New York. That decision was in part influenced by another book I had read while in the Navy, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Her life found its center point in the same Gospel sentence that so influenced Thomas Merton: “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

[photo of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin]
The idea of launching the Catholic Peace Fellowship began taking root not long after I joined the Catholic Worker, but it wasn’t until three years later, 1964, that I began collaborating with several friends in actually starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship. One of our key advisors was Thomas Merton.

[Eric Gill engraving of Christ healing the man born blind]
The retreat in Kentucky began with a welcome from Merton which had its focal point in three Latin words: Domine ut videam! Lord, that I might see! This is Bartimaeus’s desperate appeal to Jesus to heal his blind eyes. These few words are at the heart of every Christian life that attempts to shape itself around the Beatitudes, the eighth of which is “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Peacemaking begins with seeing — seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, seeing our lives in the light of the kingdom of God, seeing those who suffer, seeing how interconnected we are, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies. What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives. The day-to-day challenge is to be aware of the divine presence in the other, whoever that may be. It’s a struggle not to be blinded by fear.

[Catholic Worker October 1961– top half of page 1]
As Merton wrote in an essay published in The Catholic Worker, “The root of war is fear.”

Blindness is a major topic in the Gospels. It concerns not only those, like Bartimaeus, whose eyes cannot tell the difference between noon and midnight, but all of us. .Our constant challenge is to be aware of the divine presence — and at the same time be alert to the demonic, to be able to tell the difference between that which safeguards life and that which destroys life, to mark what reveals the kingdom of God and what obscures it.

[drawing by Jim Forest of A.J. Muste]
At the Merton retreat the theme of seeing was dramatized by the presence among us of A.J. Muste, a leading figure in the American peace movement. As a seminary student, Martin Luther King had first learned about the path of nonviolence in a lecture given by A.J. Muste. He later became one of King’s advisers. A.J. had devoted many years of his life to work for nuclear disarmament. Before his death in 1967, he played a pivotal role in efforts to end the Vietnam War.

[fall maple leaf]
But it is not what A.J. talked about during the retreat that I recall most vividly. It was the fact that shortly before coming to Kentucky, A.J. had undergone surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, he was in a constant state of amazement, seeing everything as if he had been given the eyes of Bartimaeus. I have never seen anyone, even Dorothy Day, look at the world around him more attentively, so full of awe and gratitude. No leaf or flash of color went unappreciated. He reminded me of a sentence from G.K. Chesterton: “I am astonished that people are not astonished.” A.J. helped all of us open our eyes a little wider.

[Nagasaki after the nuclear explosion]
One of the topics in our retreat conversations was technology. On the one hand, technology has the potential to solve many problems. I recall how grateful Merton was for the ingenious Coleman lantern that illumined his hermitage. On the other hand, technology can create a hellish darkness. It can destroy whole cities in a blinding nuclear flash while incinerating millions of people.

[Pandora opening the box]
One sentence that stands out in my memory of the retreat is this: “If it can be done it must be done.” Once a technological possibility is envisioned, we are drawn to making the vision real as irresistibly as Pandora was drawn to opening the chest that had served as a prison for all evil spirits. The challenge of being members of a technological society poised on the edge of unprecedented self-inflicted catastrophe is developing a capacity to envision consequences — to foresee, for example, that a nuclear weapon, so long as it exists, is sooner or later likely to be used and when that happens will kill vast numbers of innocent people.

[icon of the Last Supper – the apostles with Christ]
Merton and I carried on a frequent correspondence that began soon after I joined the Catholic Worker and lasted until his death — seven years of letters. In a letter he sent me several years after the retreat, he remarked that peacemaking is in fact an apostolic work — work of the highest order. It means becoming more Christ-like. It’s work that centers on conversion, both my own unfinished conversion and the conversion of others. Drawing on the example of the apostles, we need to keep in mind that no one is converted by anger or contempt or self-righteousness. Only love pries open the doors that enmity locks. In fact to really be effective peace work needs to be animated by love, not love in the sentimental sense but in the sober biblical sense of the word. As St John put it, “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” Another way of putting it is this: Until we love our enemies, we’re not yet Christians.

Once again, seeing is the challenge. For that to happen, we have to see our neighbor, even if he is someone currently possessed by evil, with God’s eyes rather than our own. God never gives up on any of us.

[Franz Jägerstätter]
One of the people we talked about at the retreat was Franz Jägerstätter, a man not many people had heard of at the time. Gordon Zahn’s book about Jägerstätter, In Solitary Witness, had only just been published. Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him. He was aware of the satanic character of Nazism and spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hellish nature of Hitler’s movement. He paid for his peaceful resistance with his life. Over the years Jägerstätter has come to be recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Linz, Austria, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies or to have a role in the Nazi concentration camps and the structures which siphoned Jews and others into them. In fact, many bishops were outspoken supporters of Hitler’s wars.

[Franz Jägerstätter – Austrian postage stamp]
A saint like Franz Jägerstätter, his eyes wide open, represents the holy act of saying “no” under certain circumstances: “No, I will not be your obedient killer. No, I will not play it safe. No, I would rather die than join in a parade to hell.”

An item of good news is that Blessed Franz Jägerstätter is now about to become much better known. A film about him, “A Hidden Life,” written and directed by Terrence Malick, is due for release in 2020. It’s a film not to miss.

[Jim Forest and Tom Cornell in the CPF office 1966]
The retreat played a major role in shaping the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In January 1965, I became the first person on the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and soon after was joined by Tom Cornell. Merton was the most renowned member of our advisory board, with Dan Berrigan, another participant in the retreat, becoming in effect our chaplain. Our core work was assisting young Catholics who were seeking recognition as conscientious objectors — people saying no to war and seeking instead to embrace a life shaped by the works of mercy.

[painting: I was hungry and you fed me]
To conclude: It all has to do with how we see each other. As Saint John Chrysostom said, “If I do not see Christ in the beggar at the church door, I will not find him in the chalice.”

Domine ut videam. Lord, that I might see!

— Jim Forest

* * *

Kanisstraat: exploring a street name

Alkmaar in the 16th century. The painting is a panel in the Works of Mercy series now in the care of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The artist is known only as the Master of Alkmaar.

We live on a small, traffic-free street, Kanisstraat, in the historic center of the Dutch city of Alkmaar. Kanisstraat has been our address since 1982, when the neighborhood was run down and houses cheap. We’re just a minute’s walk from the town’s most impressive structure, the cathedral of Saints Laurence and Matthew, completed in 1518 after several generations of construction.

Nudged by curiosity and with assistance from staff at the nearby Regional Archive, we’ve recently done a little historic research and, in the process, found a book on the origin of central Alkmaar’s street names, including ours.

We learned that in the fifteenth and most of the sixteenth centuries, the Kanisstraat was just outside the town’s western border. Before the expansion and fortification of the town in 1573, our little street was much longer, extending out into the countryside. The further end was populated by the poorest people of the city, the ones who, for various reasons, were relegated to the outskirts: the unskilled, the disabled, widows, the mad, the otherwise unsavory. They mainly lived by begging. In the process of wall and canal construction due to Alkmaar’s enlargement, the hovels of the poor on the Kanisstraat were torn down.

The houses on the Kanisstraat closest to the center were more substantial. At  Kanisstraat 1, next door to us, stands a building that was, in those days, the Opmaar Inn. Built in 1540, it’s among Alkmaar’s oldest surviving houses. The alms house across the street from us, a four-sided structure with a garden in the middle, was founded by the families Paling and van Foreest in 1540.  It’s in approximately the same location as a former convent of Poor Clares. The section of the alms house on the Kanisstraat side was added in 1670. In 1880, six small houses for workers, each building five meters wide, were erected; what structures they replaced we don’t yet know.

To our surprise, in his entry on Kanisstraat, the author, T.P.H. Wortel, city archivist, drew attention to one of our favorite paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, “The Seven Works of Mercy,” a work whose maker is known only as the Master of Alkmaar. It was created about 1504 and originally hung in the cathedral. In the seven panels, one sees Alkmaar as was at the time, including some of its populace — both the well-off and the poor and crippled.

Christ is in each panel but in several is easily overlooked. Among the beggars in the first panel, there he is — the gray-robed, un-haloed man quietly gazing at the viewer rather than, like the others he is with, focusing on the married couple who are distributing bread to those in need. Without words, the panel bears witness to the text from Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “I was hungry and you fed me.” Each of the seven panels is a reminder that what we do to the least person, we do to Christ.

In the foreground of the first panel, pay attention to the indigo-jacketed man. A noteworthy detail is the wicker basket, called in those days a kanis, that we get a glimpse of on his back. The kanis was for collecting bread, the staple food of the poor. It was standard equipment for beggars. (The word kanis has a Greek root, kanistron, meaning “bread basket.”)

Were the name of the Kanisstraat translated into English, it could justifiably be called Beggar Street.

— Jim Forest

Suggestion: Look at all the panels in the Works of Mercy painting: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157623272202186

1 September 2019

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From Oude Alkmaarse Straatnamen, by T.P.H. Wortel, Alkmaar city archivist (translation by Nancy Forest-Flier)

Op 4 June 1573, two businessmen of the city of Alkmaar met at the Opmaar Inn run by landlord Jan Gerrytszoon “on the corner of the Canysstraet” [in today’s spelling Kanisstraat]: the skilled and well-known surveyor Louris Pieterszoon and his young and lesser-known colleague, Adriaen Anthoniszoon, who later became famous for his construction of city fortifications. What they ate for the 27 stuivers they paid is unknown to us, but we can suspect that they were discussing the construction of Alkmaar’s new fortifications to the west and the east of the city. This same Kanisstraat was very much affected by this work. Before this time, the Kanisstraat was a long street almost completely located in farmlands that ran straight from the old Geest Gate to the Wognum District. Now most of it was disappearing for the creation of the new city wall and wide canal that would surround the city. Before the siege began [in the war against the Spanish in 1573], the Kanisstraat was reduced to a narrow side street of the Geest and ended in a dead-end at the new city wall. On the north side of the street were the dwellings of the Paling and Van Foreest Alms House [still in existence], established in 1540, and on the south side were a few modest little houses, one of which must have been the Opmaar Inn on the corner of the Kanisstraat and the Geest.

So before 1573, the Kanisstraat was a long street that ran outside the city limits. A list of principal occupants of these houses dated March 1519 reports no fewer than 41 names! Among those occupants were a few craftsmen: a cooper, a weaver, a blacksmith and two furriers. Claes de Lombairt will have lived there, whose name suggests he ran a “table of lending” (a “bank”), and Herck the ferryman may have operated the Bergen ferry that ran to the lake just past the Wognum District. Next to him were two sisters, Aef and Lijsbet, who may or may not have answered to the name of Rondebillen (Round Bottoms).

The 1493 registry of revenues collected from the “hearth tax” “in the Kanisstraat” lists 21 stone hearths. Interestingly, at the bottom of the list of residents are these words: “The people living in the Canisstraet live mostly on bread.” So there were many poor folks on the Kanisstraat who lived by begging, and in those days beggars usually carried a basket in which to carry the bread and other foodstuffs they were given.

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Kanistraat as it is today, looking from its west end (photo: Jim Forest)

A view of the Kanisstraat from the east end; the house on the corner, originally an inn, was built about 1540.
Kanisstraat 1 as it was in 1935.
Cornelius Drebbel’s map of Alkmaar as it was in 1597, 24 years after the town was expanded both on its west and south sides. The truncated Kanisstraat is one block below the fortified bridge over the Singel.
Detail of Jacob van Deventer’s map of Alkmaar, 1560, showing the full extent of the Kanisstraat before the town’s enlargement in 1573.

Trust, Another Word for Faith

apse mosaic, Church of Sts Cosmos and Damian, Rome

By Jim Forest

“In God we trust — all others pay cash.” This was the message over the cash register in a delicatessen I often frequented in Manhattan’s Lower East Side half a century ago. It was a humorous way for a shopkeeper to communicate his determination to keep his small business from being buried in a cemetery of IOUs.

Like that merchant, most of us are cautious when it comes to money. We are well advised not to be gullible about the claims of advertisers, the guarantees of salesmen and the crowd-pleasing assurances of politicians. We have learned, often the hard way, to be careful about whom we trust, including those who court our applause and demand our obedience. “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help,” the 146th Psalm reminds us. These cautionary verses are so important that they are read or sung every Sunday in Orthodox churches: “When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

Yet even though prudent watchfulness is needed in many areas of life, trust is at the core of our social existence. Every morning, parents entrust their young children to the care of others. We trust our doctors and nurses to do their best in their attempts to keep us healthy and alive. We trust the local supermarket not to sell us salmonella-laden eggs.

Yet there is always an undercurrent of caution. When we get right down to it, it’s hard to trust ourselves. Even what we have witnessed with our own eyes and ears and have vivid memories of is not a hundred percent reliable. Recollections are notoriously unreliable. Innocent people have been executed due to the faulty memories of sincere and honest witnesses.

The Gospels remind us that the apostles sometimes had a hard time trusting Jesus. His assurances that he would be raised from the dead fell on incredulous ears. One Sunday of the paschal season is given over to recalling a saint who personifies skepticism. The apostle Thomas was unwilling to believe his friends’ testimony that Jesus had returned to life until he had not only seen the risen Lord with his own eyes but put his fingers into the wounds left by the nails and the spear.

For the skeptically minded, belief in such things is a bridge too far; for the hard-core skeptic, the only things that can be trusted are the things we can weigh and measure and count and photograph.

Ultimately faith, another word for trust, is a life-defining decision. It’s something we do, not just an idea or opinion — a cognitive state. While it’s natural for us to be skeptical, it’s also natural to be pulled with tidal force toward Christian belief as summarized in the Creed. As Orthodox Christians, one of the main ways we respond to the tension of doubt challenging faith is by participating in the liturgical life of the Church. Here we are strengthened not only by our own deepest longings but by the faith of the community that surrounds us as well as the ever-present but unseen cloud of witnesses represented by the icons that encircle us.

Taking a leap of trust in the Gospels can be a hard struggle. Unless you’ve grown up deeply rooted in Christianity and slipped through adolescence and early adulthood without passing through hurricanes of doubt, following Christ is equivalent to walking on water.

A Christian is someone who has decided to trust the Gospels — to trust this particular unique and demanding narrative. It’s a decision to try to shape our lives around the words and actions and parables of Jesus, thus to meditate on those sayings of Jesus as if the truth and wisdom they contain were a matter of life and death — because in fact they are.

In the Orthodox liturgy there are two processions, one of the book, one of the bread and wine. In the first, the book is held aloft and the entire congregation bows toward it. What book? It’s not the Bible or even the New Testament. It’s a slim book containing only the four Gospels. In it we hear Christ’s guiding voice. The procession culminates in placing the book on the altar.

In the second procession we bow again, this time toward the bread and wine which, once blessed and consecrated, bring Christ’s body and blood into our own body and blood. We trust in the living presence of Christ and its efficacy to make us whole and save us.

Belief is an action of trust, and so is communion: Christ trusting in us and us trusting in him. We choose in trust to unite ourselves with him who is love itself, him who is pure mercy, with him who equips us to become people of love and mercy, him who trusts us to reveal the Gospel to others not by argument but by witness. This makes trust the very tissue that holds the Church together, and maintaining that trust is the challenge we face as Christians every day of our lives. Like the father of the boy with the evil spirit in the gospel of Mark, we struggle with unbelief even as we believe: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

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Jim Forest — a Reader at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, the Netherlands — is the author of many books, including Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, as well as several books for children: Saint Nicholas and the Nine Golden Coins, Saint George and the Dragon and Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue. He is also international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship — www.incommunion.org. His web site is www.jimandnancyforest.com.

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The Image of the Whole Earth as Icon

(article in summer 2019 issue of The Wheel)

By Jim Forest

For the past fifty years I’ve been living with a remarkable photograph. I’m looking at it now. It was taken on the 16th of July 1969 by an astronaut who was gazing at his home planet through a thick glass window. I wonder if he didn’t feel like a new Bartimaeus — a man born blind whose eyes have been miraculously opened?

Four days later the Apollo 11 mission reached the moon, an event many millions of people watched on television. In my case, I listened to it via earphones in a cell fourteen bars wide in a maximum-security prison in central Wisconsin. Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War — I had been one of fourteen people who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. Now I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence — in fact just over one year, given the “good behavior” factor. My new address was the sort of grim prison you see in classic crime movies: tier upon tier of cells reached via steel stairways and narrow catwalks, a place that seemed black-and white even when seen in color.

It was perhaps even more exciting to listen to the moon landing than to see the event on television. Radio’s advantage has always been to enlist one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. It was astounding to envisage human beings crossing that airless sea of space, landing, then actually standing — then walking — on the Moon’s arid surface.

In the days that followed the safe return of Apollo 11, as newspapers and magazines made their way to me, I clipped out many of the photos taken by the astronauts in the course of their journey. But the biggest surprise was yet to come: the delivery of a carefully-wrapped packet containing an original print on thick Kodak paper of one of the astronauts’ photos of the Earth — the blue Mediterranean in the center, an orange and green Africa beneath it, a pale green Italy and Spain above, the night’s darkness to the right hiding India, many swirls of clouds. I was astonished at the intense verdant green of the Nile Delta.

The return address on the package was NASA.

The prison administration had made it difficult for me to receive the photo. NASA wasn’t an “authorized correspondent.” I was given the option of the packet being destroyed or being returned-to-sender. At last the warden gave way and it was delivered to my cell. For the rest of my time in prison the photo rested on top of the small table each convict was allowed.

How did this remarkable photo come to me? There was no letter. I could only guess.

Our trial had received a great deal of press attention, including articles in The New York Times. Perhaps something I had said in court about our borderless planet had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the trip to the Moon and back? I could only guess that his sending me a photo was his way of saying, “What you imagined, I saw.”

If I was right about the sender being one of the three astronauts, the donor was an officer in the U.S. Air Force while I was an anti-war protester locked up in a small cell in middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.

Which of the astronauts might it have been? A statement from Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins makes Collins a good guess.

“I really believe,” he wrote, “that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. Those all-important borders would be invisible, our noisy arguments silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.” [Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974]

The vibrant image of the whole Earth gradually revealed itself as an icon. In its deep stillness, it became a center point for prayer and an object of contemplation — this planet without borders, not one of whose population is unloved by God, a planet given us to share and care for, to love and protect, a fragile home in a universe beyond all measurement and knowing.

We may live in this or that country, but our national addresses are just street numbers along the same boulevard. We all live on this amazing speck of blue, white, green and orange with a thin layer of life-nurturing air wrapped around it. Our home.

The Apostle Paul wrote that we Christians are neither Jew nor Greek. It’s a text that invites additions. We are also neither American nor Russian, Indian or Ukrainian, Korean nor Saudi, black nor white, but one people for whom, in the vastness of God’s mercy, Christ became incarnate, lived, died and rose from the dead.

> A suggestion: Carry a whole Earth photo with you on your mobile phone. Wear it as a badge. Add it to your icon corner.

whole earth apollo 11 - 16 July 1969

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The Return of the Felon

I’m writing an autobiography, the working title of which is Writing Straight with Crooked Lines. There is a certain amount of archeology in writing a memoir. Shovel in hand, I’ve been exploring old files that I haven’t looked at in decades. One of the discoveries today was an article I wrote for Commonweal just after I was released from prison after serving just over half of a two-year sentence for burning draft records. I see my writing style in those days was somewhat Dan Berrignaesque… Jim / 1 July 2019

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by Jim Forest / Commonweal / July 10, 1970

No matter how monastic the convict, the best thing about going to prison is the joy there is in leaving. “Go to prison,” I’m tempted to say. “There is no other way to have one of the best experiences life has to offer: getting out.”

Hard not to be ?ippant about it. It’s been less than two weeks since the classic gate scene was performed for my bene?t: “Well, Forest,” the gate guard actually said, “it certainly is encouraging whenever I see someone leave this way.” (It wasn’t long ago that several climbed over the high double fence, the barbed wire retaining only one faded prison khaki winter jacket.) “I do hope you’ll never be back.”

And so do I.

The reasons — best said by analogy — are several:

Prisons are small socialist states of the least imaginative, most bureaucratic sort. The maximum-security prison, with its layers of barred cages, is perhaps Albania. The medium-security prison (correctional institution!) is post-occupation Czechoslovakia. The multitude of minimum-security labor camps, depending on staff, range in quality from Sweden (very rare) to East Germany (common). Wisconsin reportedly has one of the better prison systems, which is akin to the likelihood that once upon a time there were “better” stretch racks. In any event, it is likely that most states maintain prison systems that are more toward the Albania/East Germany end of the spectrum.

Or, not gray welfare states, they are Nazi schools. In the century-old limestone walls of Wisconsin’s maximum-security prison, Waupun, a penitentiary that could have been the set for any James Cagney Big House movie, one of the ?rst questions asked by a fellow con was, “How do you like our kindergarten?” That’s it, I thought; the thing about this place is you’re treated like a kid. But then chewing on the idea, as one does during those era-long hours alone in a Volkswagen-sized cell, I realized that most kindergartens were considerably better and more human-respecting than this. The difference was that this was a compulsory, Reich-run, live-in kindergarten for Jewish 5-year-olds. And that realization still has the ring of truth to it.

But there is yet a better one. Go see Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001 again, the part between earth apes with bone hammers and genetic rebirth in the light-show fall into electri?ed sheaves of day-glo wallpaper, the part of space ships and space stations. Both are variations on a theme, though the space station’s wheel-shape is more appropriate to the prison essence. Again there are elements of compulsion — the on-going programming, the making of one’s life into a computer-digestible punch card. Again there is the tyranny of state — stainless steel robot breast brushing in upon the terrifying vulnerability of private consciousness and ?esh. Again there is the Nazi-boarding-school sterility — as if a freeze-drying of the genitals.

But in space stations and prisons, the essence is more pure. The bed is literally empty. The programming is complete. The Hal computer, though a less conversational model, is everywhere in evidence. And there is that overwhelming circularity.

The menu is circling — in one prison its orbit requiring more days than another, but always the equinox returns, the seasons of spaghetti and breaded pork chop renewed, a kind of greasy spring.

The programs are circling. The same class seems to be eternally recycling in the prison school. The same group-counseling session is forever on the edge of learning that children believe their parents and that prisoners were instructed from birthday onward that they weren’t worth the forceps that pulled them from the womb. The same desk, the same ?le cabinet, the same license plate, the same Stop sign, the same khaki shirt forever being re-made in the prison factories…

The warden is circling: he beat his desk with his ?st yesterday and yelled, “I am the warden!” And he’ll do it again today and he’ll say it again tomorrow. He’ll say it before and after he says there is no race problem in his prison, that we don’t punish, that the hole isn’t the hole (it’s intensive therapy), that there is no erosion of staff morale, that things are getting better, that we don’t care what you write or say so long as you say it according to regulations and through proper channels…

The rituals are circling: between such and such a minute, the mail is to be had, the meal to be eaten, the clean khakis to be gotten, the monthly fruit order to be submitted, the canteen purchase to be completed, the room cleaning to be performed.

Time is delineated in circlings: “Only 43 more room inspections!” “Only 13 more fruit orders!” “Only 214 more sets of khakis!”

There is an even more signi?cant similarity: it is the prison’s distance from the planet Earth. It is as if the walls and fences were more measurable in light hours than in yards.

In 2001, there was the birthday transmission to one of the bored astronauts, a stiff family event complete with the blowing out of candles, all received in color on a screen in immaculate quarters forever immune to the roots of grass, and all arriving via the delay to which even light is subject. The transmission seems less real than a chapter from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

There is that mythical quality about events beyond prison. Surely there is a conspiracy of Tolkiens out there, a committee that does nothing but fabricate a myth-context that is supposed to be a warming-mitten around the penitential space station? Imagine! This letter is alleged to be from a person who doesn’t live in prison! This newspaper supposedly describes a world without cell inspections, a world where it is possible to sleep in company with others!

Hobbits are more real.

And so we believe and yet we don’t believe.

And the sense of existence, of I-ness disintegrates. However large the rock upon which one’s name had been carved, the rock cracks and then crumbles and the sand that’s left is desperately kept in an envelope. The self tries to believe that once this was a rock and once there was a name on it — my name! Or was it? Am I dreaming? Is the sand real? Was there ever a rock? My name?

Minds kept long times in cells know too powerfully the energy of dreams, too well the reality of fantasy.

What is real are the bars. The cell is real. The warden is real. The form requesting permission to write an unauthorized correspondent is real.

And yet there are those who, in more than body, survive prison, even ripen. It is a better proof of the existence of God than any in the Summa. Whatever answer is currently fashionable on the question of miracles, miracles remain the best proof that God gives. That this ?nger still strikes typewriter keys, that the felon-writer still imagines communication—there you have a miracle, and no small one.

Jim Forest, just paroled from the Wisconsin prison system after a year’s punishment for participation in draft-record destruction, is co-chairman of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

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